Belle Jennings Benchley led the San Diego Zoo to an international showplace when she became the world’s first and only female zoo “directrix” in 1927. For 26 years she was manager, organizer, promoter, fundraiser, author, and an international leader in animal behavior and zoo administration. In 1925, she was a divorced former teacher needing support for herself and son. She was hired as the Zoo bookkeeper and began taking lunches in and around the zoo. When she found problems, she reported them, often to Zoo founder and Board President, Dr. Harry M. Wegeforth. In 1927, after four undesirable Zoo Managers, Wegeforth appointed Benchley Manager and Executive Secretary—the Zoo’s top position. “Go ahead and run the place,” he said, “you’re doing it anyway.” And she did, until her retirement in 1953. Benchley loved animals and wanted San Diegans to appreciate them.
During her leadership, annual attendance increased by 4.5 times and its budget by more than 7 times. Benchley’s animal devotion was legendary. She could sometimes detect an animal illness before the keepers or vets, believing it just didn’t “look quite right.” Her commitment to animals extended throughout the world. She became renown as an expert in animal behavior and zoo strategies. She served on committees of the American Zoological Association and was its first woman president; she was a member of the International Union of Directors of Zoological Gardens. She was the author of several books, including My Life in a Man Made Jungle, the memoir My Animal Babies and the children’s book Shirley Visits the Zoo. Author Margery Facklam included Benchley in her discussion of 11 influential women who studied animals, placing her with the more widely known Jane Goodall and Dian Fossey. In 1930 Benchley told Time Magazine: “They spoiled the world’s best cook to make a zoo director out of me. I do not see why more women do not go in for it.”